Tuesday, January 05, 2021

America's "literary declaration of independence"

Writing for the Washington Post about 43 years ago, Joseph McLellan said:

It was only 140 years ago, half a century after the drafting of the Constitution, that America made its literary declaration of independence in Ralph Waldo Emerson's statement: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." And for the rest of that century, only the greatest writers, chiefly Whitman and Dickinson, managed consistently to make significant statements in a poetic style that was distinctively American.

Joseph McLellan (Assistant Editor of Book World), "Escaping Europe's Courtly Muses," Washington Post (April 17, 1977).

McLellan was a man of many talents. He was music critic for the Washington Post for more than thirty years. He wrote a column on chess and covered world chess matches. He wrote book reviews, as the above quote might imply. He attended White House parties and other society events and covered these in the Post's Style section.

Nota bene: McLellan observes that Stephen Vincent Benét had been justifiably dropped from a recent anthology of American literature. This of course refers to Richard Ellmann's edition, The New Oxford Book of American Verse (Oxford University Press, January 1, 1977) Compared to the older Oxford Book of American Verse (ed. Francis Otto Matthiessen, 1950), Ellmann reduces the space given to Whitman and increases that given to Emily Dickinson. Rightly dropped from the new volume, says McLellan, are Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, Stephen Vincent Benét, and Karl Shapiro. No reasons are given by McLellan.


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